In a small office south of the Bill Clinton statue in Pristina, Nora Cukaj scrolls through a picture album on Facebook. The page for her organization —Let’s Do It Kosova – is filled with pictures from projects across the country. With a bright red fingernail, she pointed at the most recent set of pictures. Two men stand in a shallow river, pulling paper and plastic from a tangle near the pillar of a bridge.
“This was in Shtime last Friday,” she said. “That was our second project in July.”
The people pictured are a small fraction of the organization’s size. LDIK claims to be not just the largest environmental non-governmental organization, but the largest NGO of any kind in Kosovo. It has 6,000 registered volunteers across the country, ready to document and clean illegal dumping grounds wherever they are needed. The small park across the street from their office is an example of their successful work.
Across town, Bekim Syla sits at the table in the center of his apartment. He lives on the sixth floor of a building where the elevator only goes to the fifth. His NGO, the Roma and Ashkali Documentation Center, spent two years working with other groups on a recycling project to benefit poor families from those minority groups. At the end of that two-year project, he’s reached a much darker conclusion about recycling.
“My opinion is not to continue with this anymore.”
Both groups reflect the current state of recycling in Kosovo. There is no government program that does recycling for the whole country. There are still gaps in the trash collection service, so a full recycling plant is not a current option. That leaves private citizens and NGO groups to fill in the gap and clean the environment. But without a central organization or high prices for their collections, many of the citizens doing recycling are struggling to find their place.
“The people who do it for the environment, they don’t sell it. They just clean the area and put some things in the dump,” Syla asserted.
Cukaj would be shocked by the dumping accusation. She’s been working with the environment since high school, when she planted trees and spoke at environmental debates. On May 24, 2012, the day she graduated from school, the Kosovo branch of the international environmental group Let’s Do It held its first nationwide day of cleaning with tens of thousands of volunteers.
“When I heard about Let’s Clean Kosova and all the people that had volunteered to do it, I found it very affecting and necessary. This is something that means something,” she remembered.
She joined LDIK soon after. Five years later, she’s one of four full-time employees and works as the operating manager for the country.
Their office recycles often, though they don’t take out the bags themselves. They collect paper and plastic in three grocery bags, two for different kinds of plastic.
“The bottles are made from a different kind of plastic than the caps,” Cukaj explained.
Those bags are picked up by a collector from Pristina REA, an economic development agency that supports a hundred private collectors across Kosovo. They take the bags and drop them off at one of the few recycling plants in Kosovo, such as Plastika.
Like Cukaj, Syla came into his project with high expectations. As an Ashkali man living in Pristina, he was very aware of the financial hardships facing the communities. And the recycling program seemed like a natural fit for them.
“The Roma community — they always used to deal with collecting paper and this kind of stuff,” he said.
The RAD Center teamed up with two other NGOs focused on minority rights, the European Center for Minority Issues and Health for All, to apply for EU funding. They screened dozens of poor applicants to eventually select 18 men from three different villages for the program. Ten of them received bicycles to help collect recyclables along the roads, five received tractors to move larger quantities around, and three managed the processing plants.
Processing is a different step than recycling, explains Lorik Muçaj. The founder of the Green Art Center, Muçaj has worked with Let’s Do It Kosovo and does a lot to educate the public on recycling in Kosovo. To explain his point, he shakes a piece of paper on the table in front of him.
“Processing means taking paper, classifying it, and pressing it. This product, which is classified as ‘clean’ and pressed, is ready to be recycled and have another product made somewhere else.”
That second part is where recycling can become a profitable business. The mass re-production of recycled goods is good business for major companies like Plastika. But for individual collectors, the profits are slim. The final report from ECMI and the RAD Center found that plastic was worth between ten and forty per kilogram and paper worth ten at the most. Even a week’s worth of the recycling from Let’s Do It would barely clear a euro in profit.
“They collect all day and when they sell it, they cannot get two or three euro,” Syla said. “In order to benefit, you have to put a truck full of plastic together.”
Even some people can get trucks together don’t benefit that much. Milaim Fazliu, another collector from Pristina REA, has been using recyclables as his main income for fifteen years. With his own truck and three guys from his neighborhood helping him, he’s able to gather multiple truckloads a day from around Kosovo.
“I have a place at my house to store everything,” he said, through an interpreter.
All that work results in, at most, 20€ per day.
With five children and no other income earners in the family, Fazliu struggles to support his family. He says the involvement of other villagers from Prelluzhë isn’t all that unusual.
“Where I live, it’s not like the people live in satisfying ways. Ninety percent are poor and many are doing this collecting,” Fazliu said.
Even the non-profits like Let’s Do It Kosova have their problems. Many of their big cleaning projects get attention from TV stations and local politicians show up to encourage their work. But keeping those sites clean is a lot more difficult. The closest dump site to their Pristina office is also one of the most notorious.
“You know the area between the Kosovo Museum and the mosque?” Cukaj asked excitedly. The area she’s referencing is a narrow patch of grass in the corner of the museum grounds next to Jashar Pasha Mosque. “Within six months, we had over six cleanups there! It’s a small dumpsite there again by the end of the week.”
The group has taken extreme steps to try keeping that area clean. In February, LDIK held its first night cleanup and removed the trash from the area on live television. Those efforts did not meet with long-term success. At the moment, that corner contains a broken plastic chair, a cluttered wood desk, and a few boxes full of other garbage.
Cukaj is critical of some of the work being done by LDIK. While his NGO helped them develop the Trash Out mapping program that shows the dump sites in Kosovo, he distances himself from the current program.
“We don’t need to spend more on one-time acts that are not sustainable. We should invest in sustainable concepts that would stop the illegal dump sites from being used again.”
Cukaj agrees that the long term impact is more important than these projects. Both groups work with schools across Kosovo to educate children about the importance of recycling. For her, though, putting energy into these dumpsites can lead to permanent change.
“In cases where the residents of the neighborhood have mobilized themselves to remove the waste, that place will almost always be clean,” she said.
Syla’s views about the needed change are dramatically different. To him, there’s no way to modify the program to benefit the Roma and Ashkali communities in a meaningful way. Giving them jobs as glorified trash collectors is not humanizing, he said.
“I don’t want to support people that go around collecting material. I want to support people that will go to school and get a proper job.”
Milaim Fazliu thinks a proper job could be had in the recycling field. His dream is to have his own company that processes recycling and employs multiple people from his village.
“If somebody is supporting me, of course I will make it. Maybe in the future,” he said.
(Brennen Kauffman was a reporting intern at KosovaLive this summer, in cooperation with Miami University in the United States.)